Choosing a literary agent is like choosing a babysitter for your baby. You’ll be entrusting your precious work, perhaps even your future as an author, to the hands of a stranger. Whom do you trust? Where do you look?
Here are some tips that will set you on the right path.
Whatever you do, do not type “literary agent” in a search engine and follow whatever links appear.
The best way to find an agent is to use a dedicated resource. There are several good websites, such as Publisher’s Marketplace, Agent Query, Query Tracker, and Agent Hunter. Writer’s Market has a subscription-only website as well as an annual publication.
You’ll also want to check out Predators and Editors, Absolute Write, and Writers’ Beware. These websites are dedicated to helping you avoid the bad agents (P&E also lists some agents who have received positive feedback).
Resource in hand, spend a few days making a list of all the agents you might want to work with. Don’t focus on your current manuscript alone. Think long term. Do you write science fiction and fantasy? Make sure the agent you’re considering represents both genres. You can expand the list by looking at who represented your favorite books (check the acknowledgment section).
Once you've completed your list, it’s time to scrutinize. For every agent, consider the following questions:
Are They Open to Unsolicited Queries From First-Time Writers?
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s an important question. If the agent does not say they are actively looking for new clients, move on. However, they might work for a large firm with more than one agent. You can use this as a springboard for further research.
Are They Legitimate?
Even if they have a nice website, double-check with P&E, AW, and WB to see if anyone has filed a complaint against them (bad contract, charges fees, fraud, etc.).
If, by chance, the agent’s name isn’t listed but you still have doubts, Victoria Strauss at WB is someone you should contact. She’ll provide a little in-depth research into a questionable name. Scammers abound. You can’t be too careful.
It’s also wise to see which potential agent belongs to a professional organization, such as the Association of Author Representatives (USA), Association of Authors’ Agents (UK), and Australian Literary Agents’ Association (AUS). It’s not mandatory to be affiliated with such a group, but these organizations are known for having high-quality agents in their ranks who are dedicated to helping authors.
What Kind of Books Do They Like?
Just because you write in the agent’s genre, that doesn’t mean they will like your work. This is where reading the books they’ve represented comes in handy. It’ll clue you in on what kind of prose, characters, setting, pace, etc. they like the most.
There are other ways. Read the “About” section on their website. Check their social media pages. Look for interviews. Some agents even talk about what kind of book they want to see on Manuscript Wishlist.
What Experience Do They Have?
Most agents will have some background information on their website, including how many years they’ve spent in the business and which agencies they’ve worked for.
Look at the books they’ve represented. Were any of them sold to big trade publishers, or does it seem that the agent only sells to small presses? You’re doing this to check their professional competence, to see if they are active and successful. Ideally, you want to pair with someone who can cast a wide net.
What if you discover an agent but can’t find out anything about them? It’s possible that they are new to the profession or just like to keep a low profile. Victoria Strauss says that’s not bad in and of itself. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Proceed with caution. If they offer you representation, ask them to provide a list of recent sales and a full resume. If they refuse to provide any of these things, you’d be advised to decline their offer.
The Next Step
Researching an agent is a very important step that should not be overlooked. The growth of the Internet has spawned hundreds of faux agents. They’ll prey on your desire to share your book with the world, and if you’re not careful, steal your money.
The good news is that a large number of honest writers and other professionals have stepped in to direct authors to legitimate agents. Take your time and do your homework. Like any long-term relationship, you want to know exactly what you’re getting into.
Ready to make contact with your chosen agent? Find out how to pitch them in person or query them.